What is love?

what-is-love

There’s a lot of confusion about the meaning of love these days. In some recent weddings, I’ve heard couples close their vows with the phrase, “as long as we both shall love.” That’s quite a shift from “as long as we both shall live.” Such a change moves marital commitments away from decisions of the will to decisions of the heart.

By defining love in almost exclusively emotional terms, popular culture has tended to ignore or even exclude any elements of truth, righteousness, and volition. This is dangerous for many reasons, first and foremost, because according to 1 John 4:8, God’s very essence is love. To misunderstand love, then, is to misunderstand God.

In 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes called the “love chapter,” we learn that biblical love—God’s love—goes far beyond the merely emotional. It even transcends grandiose eloquence, profound wisdom, visionary faith, and extreme self-sacrifice. Instead, love is volitional, arduous, and courageous. It is truthful, forgiving, nurturing, protective, hopeful, and persistent to the point of enduring forever—it never fails.

To look at contemporary marriage, the place where love is meant to find it’s most profound human expression, one might be tempted to think love is not much more than an ongoing attempt to produce a successive string of positive emotional experiences. Such things, far from never failing, always fade and fail. Reducing love to a one-sided set of transitory physical palpitations is nothing short of tragic.

In contrast, God’s love is a love that speaks truth, acts courageously, rebukes necessarily, cares genuinely, exudes tenderness, displays wisdom, desires righteousness, and exhibits humility—all at the same time. When God acts, He acts from His whole nature and with absolute integrity in a perfectly unified way.

Practically speaking this means that when He loves and forgives, He does so justly, and when He is just, He is lovingly and mercifully just. Understanding this places the cross in a clearer frame. How can God be merciful and just, all at the same time? On the cross the just wrath of God is satisfied. Jesus is punished for our sin. Simultaneously, the active love of God is nevertheless expressed and unleashed in an unprecedented way—we are fully forgiven and reconciled to God through the sacrificial love of Christ.

Suggesting that God’s love is merely emotional, simply an expression of fondness toward us, misses a central aspect of His being and makes the absolute necessity of the gospel a mockery. A God who does not judge with justice is willing to tolerate and overlook almost anything. But what kind of God is that? God’s righteous judgment, like all His other attributes, is exercised with and in love, but it is a love that cares for truth, that seeks after righteousness, that judges and restrains evil.

Without a biblical corrective to our concepts of love, we are tempted to define it as merely unqualified, indiscriminate acceptance. And this becomes an excuse for refusing to rebuke and correct and evaluate moral living—in ourselves and others. This is not a virtue born of courageous love and care, but a vice born of hedonism, indifference, and fear. Rather than showing and experiencing love, we trade away the richness and depth of true love, the unfailing foundation upon which we can live our lives well for the glory of God.

It is no wonder, then, that our marriages are failing, our relationships are shallow, and we expect God to grant us an easier life, more stuff, and increasingly entertaining experiences—all without too much interference in our personal lives. This kind of nominal cultural Christianity, where God’s purpose is only to make us better and more fulfilled people, is what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” We have no real idea what it actually means to love or be loved—by God or anyone else. And it appears we have no desire for genuine love either since it is significantly costly to practice and receive. Nowhere is this more evident than when Jesus, in John 15:13, frames love in terms of radically caring sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” These are not just words to Jesus. He demonstrates His amazing love by suffering a humiliating death on a cross to save us from our sin. This is a love with righteous substance and holy truth, a love infinitely beyond the merely emotional.

I can’t help but wonder how deeply I have been impacted by a deficient view of love. How has it impoverished my relationships with my wife, kids, extended family, friends, strangers, and even enemies, whom I’m also called to love? I have to return again and again to reading and applying God’s love letter, the Bible, to understand and practice His love with clearer vision, greater courage, and deeper dependence. Apart from this, I am captive to the impulses of emotion, the fickleness of faithlessness, and the harshness of hopelessness. Lord, save me with Your love!

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